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Controversial nuclear technology alarms watchdogs

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A controversial nuclear technology is raising alarms bells among critics who claim it may be better suited for making nuclear weapons than lowering the cost of nuclear power and could lead to a nonproliferation "Fukushima" for the United States.

SILEX uses a novel approach to uranium enrichment. The laser beams pictured here aren't attached to sharks.

A controversial nuclear technology is raising alarms bells among critics who claim it may be better suited for making nuclear weapons than lowering the cost of nuclear power and could lead to a nonproliferation "Fukushima" for the United States.

SILEX (separation of isotopes by laser excitation) is a method for enriching uranium with lasers. It was developed by Australian scientists during the mid 1990's as a way to reduce the cost of nuclear fuel, because uranium must be processed before it can be used to generate power.

The scientists formed Silex Systems to license the technology for commercialization, and that process is still ongoing. In 2000, the governments of Australia and the United States signed a treaty, giving the U.S. authority to review whether SILEX should be deployed.

That's because there could be a major proliferation problem. SILEX reduces the steps necessary to transform fuel grade uranium into to weapons-grade uranium, and the process doesn't create telltale chemical or thermal emissions, according to an article published by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. R. Scott Kemp, an assistant professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, has the byline.

Its commercial appeal is that uranium enrichment in traditional gas centrifuges is expensive, and carries a high facilities cost. A SILEX facility can be up to 75 percent smaller and uses less energy, according to a SILEX licensee GE subsidiary Global Laser Enrichment.

Despite this perceived benefit, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists argues that the technology could make "Iran style proliferation easier," and it is not alone in its view. Kemp corralled together a host of supportive opinions including the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, American Physical Society, Federation of American Scientists, a former US nuclear-weapons lab director, and several members of Congress are calling on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to review SILEX.

"The NRC is in the final stages of reviewing a license application from GE-Hitachi/Global Laser Enrichment (filed in July 2007) to construct and operate a laser enrichment facility near Wilmington, N.C. Information on this application and the NRC's review is available online," said NRC public affairs officer David McIntyre. The 2000 agreement gives Silex Systems access to U.S. investors.

McIntyre cited a 1999 U.S. Department of State assessment of SILEX when questioned about proliferation concerns. "This review concluded that it was in the US national interest to bring the technology here and maintain control of it," he said. "The NRC's requirements for the control and protection of classified information and security of nuclear material address nonproliferation concerns."

The same report suggested that a SILEX facility could make it much easier for a rogue state to clandestinely enrich weapons grade uranium to create nuclear bombs, the Bulletin reports.

The Bulletin is not assuaged by the NRC's statements; rather, it wrote that the NRC was essentially "turning the other cheek" to a grave matter of national security by claiming that it is not its mission to perform nonproliferation assessment in a 2010 letter to environmental activists.

Kemp provides a detailed chronology on SILEX in his article, and doesn't hold back on his opinion of the NRC's job performance. "The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has refused to consider the proliferation risk in its decision to issue a license for the first commercial SILEX facility, despite a statutory obligation to do so. Only a few weeks remain for Congress to intervene," he wrote.

The Bulletin report also suggested that successful commercialization would drive interest in laser enrichment. It noted that at least 27 countries have "dabbled" in laser enrichment, and that India purchased a SILEX like laser in April. It suggested that the NRC conduct a study to determine whether the benefits outweigh the risks.

"When a nation's regulator fails to regulate, it leads to unforeseen and potentially catastrophic consequences. Unless Congress or the NRC commissioners intervene now, SILEX could become America's proliferation Fukushima," Kemp concluded.

(Image credit: Silex Systems)

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David Worthington

Contributing Editor

David Worthington has written for BetaNews, eWeek, PC World, Technologizer and ZDNet. Formerly, he was a senior editor at SD Times. He holds a business degree from Temple University. He is based in New York. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure